Friday, May 31, 2013

On Book Proposals--and how I got my nonfiction agent

Here is my latest video: for the YouTube crowd that likes its info delivered visually/aurally. I made one on how I got my nonfiction agent and a sort of outline on how I wrote the book proposal that brought us together.

If you don't already follow my YouTube, check out Channel JulieSondra. I video blog about publishing and writing advice with some personal perspectives. Kinda like this blog! :)

Monday, May 27, 2013

Writing Fiction vs. Writing Nonfiction

I never saw myself as a nonfiction author.

Ever since I was little I wanted to write stories. And write stories I did. (And I illustrated them, though for some reason doing that never led me to think I'd be a great artist someday.)

My creativity was praised by teachers who were delighted to have a student who enjoyed writing, and of course my parents patted me on the head and humored me. But it seemed to be really the school papers and the academic writing where I was actually making strides. Hmm.

When I got older, I wrote my first novel at age fourteen. I was over the moon with how much fun it had been to make a whole story about my very own characters, and I proceeded to show it to my grandmother and draw it a little cartoon cover. Her words were "I'm just tickled" and "Keep writing." She didn't give me much feedback, but she wanted to encourage me.

In the meantime I was getting a lot of praise for my schoolwork and my literary analyses in Honors English. It wasn't very special to me. I think I just kinda expected good grades because I knew I could write a sentence and spell decently. Hmm.

Then in senior year of high school, with two novels under my belt, my AP English teacher gave our class a choice of doing a "creative project" or a "critical project." I of course immediately jumped on the "creative project" and submitted my proposal to the teacher, which had to include three sample pieces. We were told we had to be "approved" to get to do the creative project. For some reason the teacher seemed dismayed when I declared my intent.

"But you're so good at the critical stuff," he protested. I told him I didn't care; I wanted to do the creative project. It didn't matter to me that he was constantly using my papers for the example when going over the points for the class, and I didn't care that I was supposedly good at reading and analyzing other people's work. I wanted to write my own.

The teacher ended up not even reading my submission and denying that I had even applied, then repeated "You should just do the critical paper, because you're so good at the critical stuff!" (He told me he'd "try to find" my folder. He ended up unearthing it months later, which was good because this was in the days before computers and I did not have copies. But he just gave it back to me, unread, and I had to do the critical paper because "I" missed the deadline for submitting to do the creative one. Okay. At least I wasn't the only person he was pushing an agenda on; one of the other kids in the class wanted to be a poet and this teacher kept telling him to write fiction.)

I got a 5 on the AP exam at the end of the year (which, for those not familiar with AP, was the highest possible score and it was achieved by only five kids in my school). It entitled me to two classes' worth of college credit, so I never even took a college English class. But I went on surprising teachers with my supposed clarity of thought and thorough exploration of topics in my essays and papers, and even got another teacher who kept using my stuff as an example to make handouts from. I was glad to be good at it, but it really wasn't very satisfying. The writing I loved with all my heart was the fiction I was creating. By the end of college I'd written four more novels.

I was not as good at fiction as I was at nonfiction. That's for sure.

But loving something makes you do it often, and hopefully doing it often leads you to become good. I started submitting short stories to magazines and never got anything but rejections. And I started blogging about asexuality, and all of a sudden the media was always wanting to talk to me. My quotes appeared in five mainstream print interviews; I got three television invites; I appeared in a documentary movie as an interviewee; I got mentioned on international television; I was asked to write articles for a sex-positive magazine (which ended up being my first published work). I made video blogs about the same subject and ended up with over 2,000 followers. I made a Tumblr to share my thoughts on asexuality and ended up with hundreds of people following me and thousands reblogging my writing.

But that didn't happen for my fiction.

I don't really love writing nonfiction, but according to everyone who cares, I am apparently pretty good at it. Combining those skills with a topic I am indeed passionate about--asexuality awareness--does lead me to enjoy writing nonfiction, and I especially enjoy communicating with people about the ideas we share. But my first love will always be fiction, and ultimately I don't want my devotion to my nonfiction topics to make my engagement with fiction any less intense, any less focused, any less possible for me in the future.

I'm hoping fervidly that I have indeed practiced my first love sufficiently to be good enough to get published by now. I'm so jazzed that I have a literary agent for both my fiction and my nonfiction, and I'm so excited and hopeful about the asexuality book getting out there for everyone who might want it, but worrying that the fiction is never going to sell is getting to me. I have a feeling the nonfiction will go first and I don't want it to take precedence over this other oh-so-related but oh-so-different dream of publishing stories.

I guess sometimes I can be an insecure writer right along with everyone else. :(

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Getting the call: My nonfiction agent story

A lot of awesome writers I follow have their "agent call" story on their blogs, and they're a lot of fun to read, but I never did one back when I signed with my fiction agent, Michelle. So I'll have to do that someday! But for today, since it just happened, I'll give you guys a rundown of how I came to sign with Andrea Somberg for my nonfiction project, and what that offering call was all about.

The book idea

The Asexual Flag!
I decided to write a nonfiction book on asexuality just over a year ago. A self-published book on the topic exists, and a textbook exists, but there aren't any books on asexuality in the bookstores or available through mainstream publishing companies. I started working on it on April 7 last year, finished a draft within a month (because I've said it all before!), and began querying on May 21 after writing the book proposal. (What I've learned about book proposal writing is a story for another time.) For nonfiction, you don't actually have to have the book written, but I figured it would be easier to describe it for an agent (and ultimately a publisher) if I'd actually written it. So I began querying, offering potential agents a look at the proposal if they were interested.

The querying process

I queried throughout the end of May and the beginning of June. I also sent the book to a couple publishers directly. I stopped querying completely for the rest of that year when I got one nibble from a publisher (who asked to consider the proposal) and one nibble from an agent. Ultimately my exchanges with that agent made me think I did not want to work with him anyway for reasons I will not discuss here, but he requested my proposal. He didn't follow up until four months later, asking whether it was still available. When I sent him the updated proposal, he disappeared again. I still haven't heard from him.

My querying push for the asexuality book was put on hold because I got signed to Michelle Johnson for my fiction, and there was a lot going on with that, including submission, editorial feedback from publishers, and a significant revision. I also decided to work on the book itself for a while and asked for a volunteer test audience for the book. More than 60 people volunteered and some of them gave me really good feedback. I started querying again after speaking at a queer conference on the Asexual Voices Panel. (I guess it inspired me!) I started a round of queries in February 2013. I didn't hear back from a single one of them.

Finding Andrea

March 2013 ended up being my last round of queries. Andrea at Harvey Klinger was in the March group. I was attracted to her as an agent because she had a great track record for nonfiction books, was actively attending conferences and even heading up workshops about nonfiction book pitching, and in general seemed both approachable and selective. And I liked Harvey Klinger as an agency because they've been around longer than I have, represent prominent authors I've actually heard of, and have a clearly outlined, understandable submissions procedure posted. They struck me as the kind of no-nonsense agency I wanted to handle my nonfiction book.

I received a few quick "not for me" rejections, finally started getting some trickles from the February group (rejections), and then on April 12 Andrea requested my five pages. (Inclusion of five pages is requested in her query guidelines, actually, but since the book doesn't actually have to be written if you're querying for nonfiction, I figured she only wanted that for fiction.)

Andrea read my introduction, requested my proposal (plus sample chapter) on May 10, communicated with me a couple more times, and finally ended up saying she wanted to know what I thought about her ideas for where to send the book for publishing. We arranged a phone call and she offered me representation on May 21. I accepted the next day. Normally I might have taken longer to consider her offer, but I only had one outstanding agent proposal in consideration at that point and he'd been silent for seven months, and on top of that, Andrea said all the right things in her phone call. I could tell immediately that she was a perfect match.

Talking with Andrea

I know most of the blogs that discuss agent calls mention the "I WAS SO NERVOUS" thing, but I have yet to feel "nervous" on an agent call. (This was my third, but my first for this book.) That's mostly because I already know or assume the agent likes my book, likes me, and is excited about it, and so that's mostly what I feel on an agent phone call: excitement! Hooray, I'm about to talk to the person who's going to help me take the next step!

I couldn't have been more right about Andrea being a good match for my book. First off, she complimented me a lot and gave me a clear picture of how much we're on the same page. Paraphrased are some compliments and thoughts she offered me:

"I thought first off that the writing was fantastic."

"I thought that this could be a really great resource for a lot of people."

"I also think you can really effectively market it to the people who really need it."

"I loved your conversational tone."

"Everything's very well-written. I do think it's very strong as-is. The changes that I think would need to be made would be more from a marketing standpoint. If there were to be revisions, I would anticipate them being very very minor."

"I really enjoyed it. And you know, you're a very talented writer. It's rare to find someone who's a talented writer, and the book also fills such a hole in the marketplace. It's really wonderful to find."

"I see so many projects a week, and it's nice to come across something that I think is exciting."

"I just think that there's a real need. I think it's really wonderful that you're doing this. And I think it'd be really wonderful if there is such accessible, helpful information out there that people can buy in book form. I think it's very important."

Yeah. So even though I knew she wouldn't be offering representation if she didn't think I was pretty groovy, it's still really touching and a little overwhelming to hear those kinds of words about your own work, and to think she must really mean them if she wants to take a chance on getting my book out into the world.

So I signed with Andrea on May 22, and one thing that really impressed me about her was that she had such a clear idea of who we were going to propose to. She threw out half a dozen names during our phone call--not just publishers but editors she knows personally at those companies--and I could tell she has a fully developed understanding of what these folks acquire and what their tastes are. That's going to be fantastic for the submissions process, and I feel very good about what it's going to mean for the future of this project.

Andrea also was very understanding about explaining their agency's typical procedures with foreign and audio rights, responded very well to my concerns about the contract and modified a couple items to address my comments, and was enthusiastic in follow-up e-mails about further ideas for the proposal and the book. She responded quickly every time and she seems like she's in the same place I am: We can't wait to get started.

So . . . watch this space for news. :) Thanks for reading!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Wendy West Saves the World

I've wanted to be a writer since I had the words to say so. Considering that, I guess it's not very surprising that I produced a great many little stories as a child, and one of my earliest examples was an adorable little short story entitled "Wendy West Saves the World."

Written on March 15, 1989, this 232-word story about a heroic explorer with superpowers who saved the world from aliens even had its own hand-drawn cover art:

Here's the full story, with spelling and grammar preserved. (Yes, even then I was a pretty pedantic little squirt.)

Wendy West was an explorer who had shiny black hair and light purple eyes. She could see farther than a million telescopes put together could see.

One day Wendy West was exploring a hole in Sudan, Africa. She heard some screeching inside the hole and a laser beam shot out of it, narrowly missing Wendy. It hit a tree and the tree evaporated into thin air.

Wendy was shocked at this. She looked into the deep hole. It seemed endless, so she used her special vision to peer deep into the hole. At the bottom, there was a huge group of tall, blue men! They shot lasers at her. They missed. She ran to a nearby police station.

The police were on coffee break. Wendy got a police man to come to the hole. He looked inside the hole. "Is this your idea of a joke? I don't see anything," Said the police man. "No," said Wendy. She shined a flashlight down in the deep hole. Sure enough, nothing was there. She used her special vision to look around in Africa, then in Europe. When she got to China, there were the blue men, shooting huge buildings down.

The police sent helicopters to China, after Wendy West reported her story. They disposed of the aliens, and then they had a party for Wendy and proclaimed that day a holiday called "Alien day!"
It just kills me that the police were on coffee break. Hahaha.

Also that apparently Wendy needed to tell police in Africa to go send helicopters to China in case they hadn't noticed that aliens were shooting their buildings down.

What I think is interesting about this (besides the perfect spelling and near-perfect punctuation in an elementary-schooler's story) is that the heroine of the story WENT AND GOT HELP when something bad happened, and she LET THE POLICE HANDLE THINGS instead of going on a ridiculous, dangerous quest. She had superpowers, but all she could really do is see really faraway things. So she gathered information, passed it on to people who had the power to tackle the problem, and was thanked with a little party. That's actually kind of realistic.

Well, if you can get past her having super vision.

For the record, Wendy was not supposed to be a kid. She was an explorer and an adult. It's interesting how often I created main characters who were adults when I was a child. I even sometimes wrote fanciful stories from my own point of view that were actually supposed to be me when I was older. I remember one where the prompt was "As long as I live, I will never again . . . " and I proceeded to describe a scenario in which an older me opened a bottle from the sea and ended up cursed with bad luck. The bad luck included me driving a car and getting a flat tire, and at the time I wasn't old enough to drive. Oddly, even as an adult I don't have a driver's license. The little doodles in the margins feature a much older me. It's pretty weird.

If anyone reading this is an author who wrote during childhood, did you write about children or adults? Curious. . . . 

Friday, May 24, 2013

Books I Love: The Hunger Games

I don't think an author exists who doesn't love books.

We all get started in this business partially because we were wowed and distracted and entertained and moved by other authors' work first. I plan to discuss books now and then on this blog, and I'll do my best to only name names when I'm talking about the books I like. For my first post about someone else's work, I'd like to discuss my feelings about The Hunger Games.

You won't see me talking that much about hugely popular books on this blog (okay, maybe once or twice), but part of the reason I want to talk about it is that it is super popular, and I think it's really important that as writers we look at what the most well-known books in our genres are saying to our reading public. (Plus it's nice to see what the hype is about and have my own opinion.)

So what did I think of The Hunger Games? Please be advised that I do include spoilers in some cases.

First off, I didn't like the writing as much as I liked some of the concepts. As an editing nerd, I noticed a lot of comma splices, and the narration is just a little clumsy sometimes, but not often enough that you get used to it and adapt, so when something's weird or wrong it really sticks out. Katniss's narration talked to the faceless audience a lot, especially in the beginning, to explain stuff to us, and I was wondering who she was talking to. Sometimes it was okay because it bounced right off of what she was thinking or doing. Other times it was a history/culture lesson and that I didn't like, but I dealt with it. And there were a lot of flashbacks, which sometimes worked well and sometimes felt shoehorned in. Beyond that, the actual writing style was sometimes awkward, but the present tense narration was unusually invisible, and I thought Katniss's tone was established early and established well.

Given this criticism, why do I think it's one of the best books I ever read?

Katniss herself, first of all. She was firm and independent and seriously a nice breath of fresh air after so many YA novels featuring drippy heroines who melt over guys and focus on getting a guy as the center of their lives. Nope, not this girl.

Stepping away from the book itself for a moment, I should say that she's kind of important from a feminist standpoint when it comes to literature, and I don't mean that in a silly girl-power way. I mean that the big book-to-movie blockbusters in this era don't have good messages for women at all.

If the protagonist is a girl or a woman in these megahits, her purpose usually focuses primarily or exclusively on a boy or man. And "getting" him means she "wins," and gets "happily ever after." Katniss is important because she shows that a female lead can exist without being dependent on a boy to give her purpose.

The only person she truly loves is her sister, so you believe it when she puts it all on the line to protect her, even though she clearly feels that caring makes her vulnerable. When Katniss volunteers for the Games, you can immediately see that she is already being practical about the future, because the wheels are already turning on how not to look weak by crying. And she's all business while saying goodbye to her family. She's prepared for this. She's sixteen, but she's a grown-up, and throughout the rest of the story she thinks about everything she's doing in terms of how it will affect her family, especially her sister Prim. And she doesn't carry the "I'm doing this FOR MY FAMILY" banner for show. It is part of her in the arena, and consistently works as a motivating factor in her thoughts. It isn't a ruse and it's written very well.

I like that Katniss doesn't like "owing anyone" and feels like she owes Peeta a thank-you for helping her when she was a kid, and I unexpectedly chuckled when she was thinking about how it'd sound insincere if she thanked him while trying to slit his throat in the Games. She recognizes Peeta's kindness and sees it as a possible ploy right from the beginning, and throws it right back at him--which works to her advantage. This is choreographed to some degree--the organizers of the Games like shaking it up and making a love story happen in the arena--but Katniss plays it all as a game and that's probably one of the most interesting things about her. She actually had layers, and wasn't perfect all the time--the fact that she broke down and cried after losing her temper during her evaluation was particularly telling of the stress that's gotten under her skin--and she's not always self-aware about how she's coming across, like when she denied that she was perceived as "sullen and hostile" while figuring out how to present herself in the interviews. I love that she has so much fire and great points--that she resists giving the Capitol what they want in terms of answers at the interviews because she perceives that they're taking her future already, so what right do they have to suck on her past?

Katniss's emotional roller coaster is well told . . . she's angry about being put in this terrible position and indignant about being expected to go along with the dog and pony show before the Games, but beyond that she has connections and feelings about everyone she comes into contact with--sizing them up, pulling them in, pushing them away. I especially liked how she dealt with the voiceless servant in her room. I was actually more intrigued during the lead-up to the Games than I was during the Games themselves, but I liked how Katniss used what she knew to survive, didn't do absolutely everything right, sometimes got hurt, sometimes had weaknesses, and sometimes had to be saved (but usually by luck or correctly deducing how to manipulate her rescuer, not in the usual "boy saves damsel in distress" way).

Her feelings for Peeta were really well handled too; a lot of what she did was for show, because of the situation she was in, but she was not one-dimensional and some of her feelings were conflicting. Even if you're not romantically attracted to someone, it's good to have another person on your side in a scary and desperate situation, and nearly anyone would develop strong feelings of at least protectiveness and appreciation. I loved that the story explored types of caring, intimacy, and love that do not have to be romantic. I don't think she was completely surprised that Peeta's feelings were different from her own, though she did seem sort of a little confused and disappointed to know that he wasn't faking anything he did for the cameras.

I'd say it annoyed me how there were so many indirect deaths--because that happens a lot in violent books when the main character is to be kept pristine, so the enemies die by accident, by each other's hand, or by natural causes--but this thing overall annoyed me less because Katniss did kill one person completely fairly and another person straightforwardly when the opponent couldn't fight back, so she didn't come through the Games with no blood on her hands. But for a plot so vicious and bloody, there really were a lot of indirect deaths--Katniss was directly involved with someone dying from insect bites, dying from poison, etc. I won't go into detail, but I thought the ending was a great mini-rebellion. I actually saw the twist coming (and hoped it wasn't going to happen, even though it seemed inevitable), but I liked how they twisted the twist, which sets the scene for . . . future books. (You can tell more were planned by certain little aspects of how particular characters acted.) And I really appreciated that they did NOT just cut off at the end with a victory; they actually showed some aftermath and some reacting and some of the reward that the tributes had fought so hard for--and some of the consequences.

There are certainly reasons people don't like these books that I understand and to some extent agree with, but I think the series (particularly the first book) is good in a number of ways that are unusual for YA books, and I highly recommend them.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Representation Settled: So You Think You're Asexual

Today I accepted an offer for literary agency representation and signed a contract for my nonfiction book So You Think You're Asexual.  I am officially a double-agented author.

Me with my newly signed contract
Everyone, please meet my agent, Andrea Somberg of Harvey Klinger.  She really knows her stuff, agrees with me that a book on asexuality is something that needs to exist, and even teaches a workshop on book proposals! I think I'm in really good hands here!

What this means: Nonfiction is sold through the proposal. With Andrea's help, I will be fine-tuning a document that will be going to publishers. This is no big deal for me because the proposal (and the book) is already written, since I had to have a proposal in order to query nonfiction agents. Andrea said the proposal I sent her was in need of only minor changes, and I have a few things I want to add/change too. Once we have the proposal finalized, it will go out to the editors Andrea knows who might be interested in acquiring it. The book itself will probably not be requested by publishers until or unless someone decides to make an offer. (It feels so backwards from the way fiction is sold, since you have to have a polished manuscript BEFORE querying agents!)

We’ll be approaching publishers soonish.  I hope to be able to share good news when I have it. In the meantime, I plan to do another "how I got my agent" video to complement this one about my fiction agent, Michelle, and I'll discuss the difference between querying for fiction and querying for nonfiction in a future post. I also plan on doing some posts about what my calls were like! I never did a "the call" post and I think people are interested in that sort of thing!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Secondary Characters (Bloghop!)

Rachel Schieffelbein is hosting a bloghop on SECONDARY CHARACTERS, and I decided to hop in! This is my first bloghop, y'all! [I actually signed up with my official site before I made this blog, and I will use this one from now on if I do more bloghops, but for now I'm just linking them to each other.]

Secondary characters done right are the ones who aren't just there as part of a story, aren't just there to "support" the protagonist . . . and aren't obviously appearing to fulfill a function for some purpose ordained by a writer in another universe. These characters breathe. They feel. They have independent emotions and they don't behave as if they're less of a person just because they have less time on stage. They feel like they started living when they were born, not when they walked into the protagonist's life.

One of my favorite secondary characters is Butler from the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer. Butler supports his underage charge, Artemis, through thick and thin, and is probably the best bodyguard in existence (for a person who really needs one). He's actually come very close to death more than a dozen times while protecting Artemis, and he doesn't just protect him physically—he supports him in all his ridiculous evil genius schemes, and his actions are inspired by love for his charge just as much as they are inspired by his sense of duty.

But besides just being a great bodyguard and a loyal protector, Butler has depth. His family has protected Artemis's family for generations. (His sister, Juliet Butler, is similarly trained, and later protects Artemis's little brothers, among others.) Artemis didn't know Butler's first name until he really almost died because of a promise he made. He's also fiercely protective of his little sister even though she can take care of herself. He's a layered dude and an inspiring (if imposing) character. I love what his protection allows Artemis to do in the stories, and I love how he develops certain relationships with the other characters that also braid loyalty and compassion together with competence and badassery. (And the jokes about him being too big to fit in certain cars, chairs, and rooms are delightfully visual and fun for the younger kids who read the books.)

I love Butler. I wish I had one.

Another secondary character I love is Bailey from The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares. Okay, so Bailey's "job"—in a book where Tibby is the rightful main character of her storyline—is to inspire Tibby to care about the right things and do some tearjerking. She's supposed to do this by being a sad girl with cancer whom everyone figures will die at the end and exists primarily to teach everyone about the preciousness of life. Too bad Bailey had other plans.

Bailey is inspirational partly because she isn't trying to be. She isn't what you'd expect. She and Tibby pretty much detest each other and develop what could only be described as a grudging respect for one another. It was so amazing to see that Bailey's gruffness and unpleasantness continued to be part of her personality even after she warmed to Tibby and tried to emulate her—because after all, her life is about her, and she doesn't want anyone's pity friendship. In stories containing an inspirational kid with cancer, usually they're angry at the world because of their disease and experience a personality overhaul when they realize their time is limited. Bailey isn't like that. She's her. She's not just a kid with cancer.

I loved seeing her wear those magical pants.

When I write, I try my best not to stick supporting characters into the mix just to do their thing and leave. I don't want to make them unique by tacking on a catch phrase or a quirky behavior. I want readers to understand them as complex people, with evidence that they have opinions and preferences and life stories that aren't part of the book. I want them to be as fully formed as any main character—and I want them to be fleshed out enough that if the story happened to be about them, there'd be enough material there to make it interesting. Stories in which the "secondary character" is the protagonist, like Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire or Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, are especially wonderful in this way. They show us how the supporting character can be the whole show in the end.

Amazing secondary characters are a good reminder that every character is the protagonist of their own life. Well-told stories should always feature characters with full lives that read like they continue existing outside of the pages.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Double Agent

So it looks like I'm about to have two agents?

Today I received an offer of representation for my nonfiction book, So You Think You're Asexual. I'm not discussing the details yet because I have to go back to the other agents who were considering it and do that whole thing, and I'll discuss more about what's going on and who I'm signing with once the decisions are tied up and the papers are signed.

My fiction agent Michelle only represents nonfiction if it's True Crime or Memoir books, so I had to look for someone else to handle this project. So You Think You're Asexual is an informative book about the sexual orientation of asexuality, and it will be pitched and marketed as an alternative sexuality book along with other queer sexuality titles. You can see more detailed information about So You Think You're Asexual on its info page on my main site.

My agents know about each other and everything's kosher. Can't wait to make the official announcement. :)

Agents queried (total): 28
Form rejections: 11
No response: 14
Proposal requests: 3

I've joined SCWBI

As part of my attempt to get more in touch with the big wide writing world, I decided to join the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators.

Joining will supposedly connect me with a bunch of benefits, including the chance to be part of a group that affects the publishing world, access to forums where I can interact with and learn from writers and publishing industry professionals, discounted rates for certain SCBWI-affiliated functions, membership in a regional chapter, eligibility for writing awards, and subscription to their newsletter and publishing book.

My materials came today, along with my membership card and a little survey I had to take. Looking through the little magazine, it appears to have all kinds of great stuff in it--news on what's coming up on the website soon, how-to articles on everything from marketing yourself to writing process advice, and success stories. Man, reading the success stories makes me a little weepy. I want to be one of them someday soon. :) A lot of the information is for illustrators, too, since this is for both authors and illustrators of children's books, but I'm in it for the YA aspect. Still neat to look at since I do run a couple webcomics.

"The Book" is more of a resource guide to all aspects of publishing, and I guess you get one when you join and that's it. It's full of cool stuff! There's a section on preparing/submitting work (including a query letter how-to and some conference-going tips!), some market surveys, a smallish selection of publishing professionals you can query or submit to, a section on how to publicize your stuff once it's published, a "school visits" section, some legal information, and some little fill-in forms at the end for if you want to use them to make your to-do lists and submission records.

I wasn't really expecting to get a resource guide or a magazine, but I do want to engage in connection with others and possibly get to some conferences (even though they're expensive and it'd be hard for me to justify). Hopefully this organization will facilitate my goals. I've also been reading a lot of blogs and joining forums and having a blast chatting with other people. Like I said in one of my previous posts, I seem to be going through a "connection" phase to fill in the blanks left where the "creative" phase would usually be front and center, so that kind of explains the recent storm of Signing Up For Everything. But I think I feel a short story coming on, so maybe I'll get a little break from this squirrely attitude soon.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Webcomic Negative One turns eight

Today, my speculative fiction webcomic Negative One is officially eight years old.

I don't really talk much about my webcomic on my author network over here, because it's not "professional" quality work and I just do it for fun, but I'm still very attached to the story and very dedicated to updating it on time every week. I have never missed an update. It's practically unbelievable, but yes, I have updated it EVERY single Friday for EVERY week throughout the last eight years, and it has never been late or failed to update.

So I guess I'm allowed to be proud of that!

Negative One is what happened when I was starting to realize the novels I wrote in college were not publishable. I was a busy little author during my higher education, churning out four full novels in a contemporary fantasy series called The House That Ivy Built, while maintaining a high GPA and getting nearly halfway through a music degree (before switching to education and cramming all the extra classes into summer semesters). I guess it's not really surprising that what came out of my pen wasn't going to fly in the marketplace.

But even though some authors would be able to shrug and call them learning novels, I found the characters and their experiences so compelling and so precious that I didn't just want to trunk them. I also didn't want to try to squeeze them into the publishing industry's mold, because I didn't think that would be possible without compromises I didn't want to make.

So my webcomic was born. Where I can be indulgent and take my time telling the story however I want, and not have to answer to anyone. Where I can focus on characters with their interminable mental monologues and let their emotional lives take center stage. Where I don't have to feel pressured to manufacture a plot. I'm not charging anyone money to read it, so I can devote eight issues to potty-training a toddler if I want.

I don't get a lot of mail about the comic, and almost no one comments. It's not a well-known, popular comic, and I think that's partly because I'm no artist and I don't go out of my way to tailor it to mainstream tastes. It's drawn in pencil. It's by an amateur artist who's not really trying to improve her drawing. It's extremely text-heavy and the plot moves glacially. But I think the types of people who would read a comic like this are usually a bit shy and prefer to consume very quietly. I see the stats jump every Friday--on update day--so I know people are waiting for it and reading it. I do get occasional encouragement from people who love what I'm doing:
This is the most amazing story and comic I've read in years! --Alvin
I've been reading this comic for a while, and I just have to say, it's incredible. The writing, the artistry, and the characterization are all wonderful. . . . --Lyn
I love how well you capture your characters' thoughts. You go a level beyond normal understanding and really provoke thought.  --Ethel
I really like your way of story telling, I am fascinated by your story, and I love every single one of your characters. --Icke
It's hard to pick a real stand-out character from everyone in this comic, because each character is so vastly 'themselves' that none stand out beyond what relates to the reader the most!  --catc10
I feel I get to know the characters better because of the inner dialogue and stuff, and can relate to them a lot, which is something I sometimes miss with the standard online comics. --Eolill
It's wonderful to hear from people who have been touched by the characters and the story, and to realize I've succeeded in bringing this story out to the world in a limited fashion, even though it never would have worked as a novel in the mainstream market. There is an audience for it. And the writing in the comic, though very non-traditional (especially for a webcomic!), is still a decent example of my character writing. Working with these characters required me to adopt perspectives I've never experienced firsthand and convince the audience that those words are coming from someone with lived experience.

I had to narrate as a pregnant woman when I've never had a baby. I had to convincingly convey desire, loneliness, sadness, and attraction in a heterosexual relationship when I'm not straight. I had to invoke authentic details of the Asian-American experience in New York when I'm a white girl living in Florida. I had to realistically portray the balancing act my main romantic couple does--with her pessimism and anxiety balancing his optimism and happy-go-lucky attitude--when I don't know any real people like them. I had to cover what happens if you lose a child, and how you go on with your life (and to what extent you don't).

I've written first-person from the point of view of a pre-verbal child in this comic. I've written two male perspectives, and they're very different from each other--one's a sort of gregarious spiritual hippie, and the other is jaded and intellectual but has a sense of humor, and they share the same religion. I've written an extremely close relationship between a student of prophetic arts and her dear mentor, and I've written about what happens when they have to lose each other. In addition to the really weird fantasy aspects of the story which have happened to no one, I had to make everyday experiences that are just as foreign to me feel real to the audience and the characters. And sometimes it was a challenge because very little of what I'm doing here comes from personal experience. (Though sometimes the e-mail I get does suggest people think I'm a mom or I've gone through the same tragedies or whatever else.) But that's really what writing is about (unless you're writing your autobiography): convincing your readers that an entirely different person is authentically going through what you say they are.

I've enjoyed "practicing" on these characters in a low-pressure situation, but even though that's the practical upshot of what this story has been "for," their stories are far more to me than practice novels. There's no end planned and I have no intention of shutting the comic down, though I of course recognize that one day I may need to for some reason or another. But for now, I'm happy to be celebrating eight years, and I hope I'm making a "Webcomic Negative One turns nine" blog post on May 20th next year.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Food for thought

I actually do have some cool things to say, but instead of saying them, let me tell you about my dinner.

This is playing into that ubiquitous stereotype, isn't it? That bloggers have nothing to say so they're forever taking pictures of their food?

Meh. Don't judge me. Now look at my fabulous meal for tonight.

So first you get the ingredients together: Mushrooms, tofu, zucchini, peanut butter, and soy sauce.

Cut up the tofu and zucchini into little blocks and strips.


 Make super-awesome peanut sauce with soy sauce and peanut butter!

Cook up the tofu and zucchini, then add the sauce.

The tofu and veggies should get a little browned.


I do the mushrooms by themselves because I think fungus is special enough to deserve preferential treatment.

And now it's done!


And now, if I'm really good, I'll get dessert. Homemade black-and-white shortbread!

Happily, whether I've been good enough to deserve dessert today is completely up to me, because I'm a grown-up. Yes, there will be cookies.

Nom nom nom.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Meeting other writers

I'm on submission. My book is being read by some very big publishing companies. It's definitely a rush, but it's also pretty stressful, and the free-floating anxiety surrounding the process makes me less inclined to dive into any creative writing projects.

When I'm not in Production Mode, you can bet I'm in one of two other states: Consumption Mode or Socializing Mode. In other words, when I don't feel like writing, I'm either reading good books/reading about writing OR I'm trying to connect with and engage other writers.

Production Mode is pretty all-consuming and usually eclipses all else when it's going on, so when it's not on the table I have time to do an awful lot of the other two. Lately I've been really craving connection with other writers, and that's part of the reason I started this blog; it seems like a good vehicle for getting in touch with others while still allowing me some semblance of Production Mode (even though it doesn't involve writing fiction). But I've also really been wanting to meet other writers locally, and today I got to do that a little bit.

I was over at SCBWI the other day and I noticed a local YA writer named Taylor trying to get a group together, so I e-mailed her and we set a date. Another YA writer was supposed to be included, but she never confirmed, so Taylor wasn't that surprised when she didn't show. We hung out in a Barnes & Noble and got to know each other, and it was a really good time--very refreshing, too, to find a young writer who's ambitious and has her head in the right place. I really enjoyed chatting with her, learning about her experiences, talking about writing and editing processes, discussing our dreams, and talking an awful lot about books we love and books we don't so much love. (Yes, we discussed The Hunger Games, Twilight, and Harry Potter. Why, oh why, did we not have all day to ramble about stuff?)

I'm looking forward to more chats with Taylor, as well as hopefully getting myself some more friends who write. It really helps take the edge off a little bit while I wait for book news. And then, once it happens for me, I'll have people around who not only want to celebrate with me but also truly understand what it means to chase this dream and get there.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Five Common Querying Mistakes

Hey! I decided my new blog's first writing-related topic would be Five Common Querying Mistakes.

Now, if you're an author looking for literary agency representation, there's plenty of information on querying around the Internet. A lot of it comes from the blogs of great agents or other publishing professionals. Nathan Bransford has a good basic query letter map, and of course Query Shark has plenty of poor examples dissected.

So why would you want to listen to MY ramble on the subject?
  • I'm a writer who's been through the whole thing, so maybe other writers will like my spin on this more than they like the advice from the agents themselves. Who knows?
  • My query letters worked. I was signed to an agent less than a year after I started, after querying fewer than thirty agents, and my query letter prompted five full manuscript requests (and more partials) before I got out of the trenches.
  • While I don't make a habit of critiquing queries (I'm ridiculously busy! Argh!), I have seen many in my time and in fact even judged a contest last year. Some of my specific advice for the querying authors in the contest, with letter dissection, was posted here and here.
So, without further ado, here is my short list of the most common mistakes I see in developing query letters and what you should do to fix them.

Mistake #1: Language errors!

Most people laugh this one off, and they shouldn't. Some writers (wrongly) believe that perfect spelling/grammar just isn't necessary anymore, and that the agent will overlook their errors if they truly see a diamond in the rough. But you shouldn't be handing them ANY "rough." Just give them the diamond!

When an agent sees that you make typos, employ misused homophones, or write awkward sentences, they don't think "Hey, writing craft isn't the most important thing anyway; it's the STORY that counts!" They are businesspeople. And they're likely to be thinking about how your query's poor writing is probably an early warning of a poorly written manuscript. They'll be thinking about how much work they'd have to put in to clean it up for the acquisition editors if by chance they offered you representation. And they'll certainly be thinking about how lazy you are if you couldn't even send them 200 words without making a mistake. This should be your most polished work. It's like a job interview. Why would you convince yourself that editing doesn't matter when this is the agent's first impression of you?

So if you struggle with language, how do you fix it? Show it around to other writers and critique partners, post it on a writing forum, or ask a language professional. Spell-check just doesn't cut it. And don't ignore formatting.

Mistake #2: Too much detail!

This is by far the most common querying mistake I've seen. Authors are desperate to tell me what happened in what order and how it all came to be, and they don't understand that I don't really care. I don't want them to give me an outline or a play-by-play. I want them to give me a concept. Think overview. Think sales statement. Because after all, that's what this is. You want your agent to invest in your work.

You have to be able to sum it up so they can see the big picture, and make it compelling enough that they want to see how you work your magic. If you find yourself explaining a lot, or filling in back-story, or falling into a litany of "this happened, then this, then this," you are probably guilty of this.

So if you struggle with detail, how do you fix it? First, back up. Think of it like a movie trailer, where you give them an idea of "what it's about" and who's involved, plus some glimpses at why it's awesome. Second, look at your favorite authors' synopses and think about the difference between their book and their summaries. Maybe try writing test summaries for other authors' books that you're not too close to, and see if you can duplicate that style for your own work. Focus on who your story is about, what their problem/conflict is, how it might be solved, and what's at stake. But dump all the unnecessary world-building and step-by-step explanations. And dump your belief that you're expected to tell the whole story now. You just need to get us interested.

Mistake #3: Vague, over-dramatic, and/or cliché phrasing!

I've read queries in which the author seems to be telling me his character goes around and does stuff. Failing to explain the shape and forward motion of your story makes it too vague. I've read queries in which the author attempts to use very colorful or attention-grabbing language to make the book look thrilling. Dressing up the language instead of trying to sell the concept makes it too over-dramatic. I've read queries in which the author uses stale platitudes or hypes his action with heavy-handed, overused catch phrases. Borrowing concepts and sayings that have been around longer than your grandmother makes it too cliché.

Do not make the mistake of being vague to avoid "spoilers." No, we really do need to know what the book is about. Do not "tell" us that your book is edge-of-your-seat action, or that it is a tour de force, or that it is spine-tingling, or that it contains life-changing wisdom. And please do not use any of these cheap phrases in your query:
  • Everything depends on whether he succeeds. (Obviously he will. What is "everything"?)
  • She has to decide whether to do X or follow her heart. (Of course she'll follow her heart. What fun is it otherwise?)
  • The world hangs in the balance. (What, specifically, is at stake? The world, or fate, "hanging in the balance" tells me nothing.)
  • Can she put everything right before it's too late? (Yeah, she can. "Before it's too late" for what? What will happen? Say that instead.)
So if you struggle with your phrasing, how do you fix it? I suggest trying to become sensitive to when a sentence doesn't add anything. Put each sentence on trial and ask it, "Well what are YOU for? What do you tell my prospective agent?" And then fire all the bits and parts that fail the test. Is there a word in there that is jumping around trying to get attention, spoiling the integrity of the sentence? Shoot it. Is there a hypothetical question that most reasonable readers would expect to answer "of course" to, like those listed above? Try making them "how" questions instead of "whether" questions--in other words, kill "will they save their parents in time?" and replace it with "they must develop a plan to save their parents before the villain turns them into robot slaves."

Mistake #4: Braggy, bratty, and clueless author bios!

Oh look, it's another author who says she's got the next Harry Potter. Delete! Hey, fancy that, another author who rambles about what a bestseller this is gonna be. Bye-bye! Well what have we here, another author who's telling me his life story! See ya.

Relevant. That's the word you need to keep in mind. Relevant. Agents care if you have a publishing history. Agents care if you have some kind of personal connection to or knowledge about the material you're submitting. And agents care if you have some applicable information about how your book will fit into a nice waiting readership pocket. Other than that? They aren't likely to want to hear it. Save your information about your family, your cats, and your non-writing passions for the jacket flap author bio. And just so you know, you shouldn't include information about what an avid reader you are or how long you've been reading voraciously. If you have only recently started reading or are kinda lukewarm on reading, you are by far the exception in this industry. Agents assume you love books. We all do; that's why we're here. And you certainly shouldn't suggest you're the next J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. If you think so, it doesn't matter if it turns out to be true; you shouldn't say it at this point, because you'll look like you have an ego the size of a planet.

So if you struggle with what to put in your author bio, what do you do? Well, you could always write nothing. Bios aren't required, though it's nice to have something. But I promise, if you're "reaching" to find something to claim as a publishing credit or you have to exaggerate to make yourself look good, it'd be better if you just don't put anything. Mention it if you've won any awards or been a finalist; mention it if you have/had a book- or editing-related career; mention it if you're in an organization or group; mention it if your MG pet school series was inspired by your being the child of two veterinarians. But when in doubt, just keep it very brief. And if you'd like to compare your work to existing successful work, don't. Say it will appeal to the same niche audience, not that it's as good as or similar to their work.

Mistake #5: Unoriginality and Overdone Themes!

Sometimes you write a really spanking awesome query and still nobody bites. And why is that? Well, have you considered that maybe you're doing the pitching right, but you're pitching the wrong thing? Of course, this can be super painful to accept if it's the case. But let's face it: Agents aren't necessarily turning projects down primarily because the authors are bad query-letter-writers or because they lack professionalism. They turn them down because they don't want that story. And other than being a poor fit for the agent, sometimes it's a poor fit for the market because everyone's already done it.

Romance: Heroine is torn between off-limits man and her obligations, or between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Paranormal Romance: Same thing, except they're supernatural creatures. YA: High school kid explores identity and has a romance and learns it's okay to be herself. Mystery: Somebody dies or goes missing, and an unlikely pair teams up to figure things out. Thriller: Somebody dies, and whatever killed that somebody is coming after the hero. Fantasy: Warring nations with good pitted against evil. Science fiction: Robots or aliens clash with humans in spaaaace. YA fantasy: Of course there's a portal, and the protagonist is the chosen one. YA science fiction: Kids get superpowers for a pseudoscientific reason and save the world. Le sigh. Some things have just been done so often that if you try to make it sound exciting when you boil it down, it's probably going to be poorly received.

So if you struggle with your concept sounding too generic, what do you do? Well, you need to examine what motivated you to write "this" kind of story again. Why is yours different? HOW is it different? Ah, that's it. Highlight how it's different from every other portal fantasy or bodice-ripper out there. It's tricky, because readers (and agents, and publishers) do like a taste of the familiar in there so they have some reason to believe they'll enjoy your book too. But first ask yourself what your book has that's different from all the other books like it, and then ask yourself how you can call attention to that in what's supposed to be a punchy, concise capsule view of your book. Sound tricky? It is! Welcome to the writing biz, where stringing together words and making it look easy is part of the job description!

This concludes my "most common" list, but if you'd like more in-depth querying instruction from me, check out the On Querying essay on my official website or my illustrated YouTube video on how to query.

And if you want to laugh at some truly absurd examples, I highly recommend subscribing to SlushPile Hell for some giggles. Throw questions or clarification requests into my comments and I'll see what I can do for you!

Good luck, queriers. :)

Disney Vacation 2013

So what have I been up to lately? Big life news was my excellent vacation to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida with my best girlie Meghan and her family.

Thursday, May 2:

Meggie's mom drove me to Orlando and we got a cabin at Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground. We claimed beds and unpacked things and put food away and went to dinner at Trail's End, a sort of Southern-style buffet.

Friday, May 3:

EPCOT Day! We rode a boat to EPCOT and had a ball. (Ha ha.) This day was just me, Meg, her fourteen-year-old daughter Katelyn, and her five-year-old son Benjamin.

We picked up FastPasses for the Soarin' ride, and then Katelyn and I got fish 'n' chips from the Britain area upon entering the World Showcase, and sat with Meggie while Benny played in a play area. Then we wandered around the World Showcase area, checking out the food and the sights in each of the countries. We saw the movie in Canada (which was funny), checked out the music-and-scenes presentation in France, and rode the Maelstrom ride in Norway.

Meggie, Katie, Benny on a boat
Benny and me being silly with masks
We also got to eat Frushi and noodles and little parfait things, and Meggie and Katie got Moroccan pancake things but didn't like them. Ben wanted Mickey ears ice cream and had to wait a long time for it, and was incredibly patient. Then we trekked back to the other side of EPCOT, drank soda samples in Club Cool, and rode Soarin' (amazing as always). We left the park intending to come back for the Extra Magic hours, but it rained, so some of us just snoozed through it.

Panda bush!
Benny finally got his ice cream
Beverly, the Italian Coke
Saturday, May 4:

Hollywood Studios! It was Star Wars Day, too, so we saw a bunch of people in Star Wars-related costumes walking around. (Sadly, Star Tours was down, but we got a FastPass for it anyway.) Our group this time was Meg, Katelyn, Brendon, and me. (Benny was with his grandmother.)

We went for the Aerosmith Rock 'N' Roller Coaster and pretty much hopped right on because we did the single rider line. I warned my seat-mate that I would be screaming a lot, and I screamed a lot. Upon telling Meghan this, she said she had never heard me scream and determined that she wanted to sit next to me on the next ride so she could hear it. Next we rode the Tower of Terror and I did indeed scream a lot as they had us in a spooky elevator and kept dropping us at random times!

Rock 'N' Roller Coaster
Tower of Terror

Then we did Muppets 3-D, hit Pizza Planet for pizzas and salad (and a Darth Vader cupcake), did the Great Movie Ride and a presentation on The Magic of Disney Animation, and then finally Star Tours was operational again and we got on it. (We got to go to the Wookiee planet AND got to see Yoda! Score!) Then it was Sci-Fi Dine-In (which had tables shaped like cars and let us watch hokey video clips while eating), and we did Midway Mania and some shopping. Nice full day.

Darth Cupcake
Brendon Furry-Head
Maleficent in the shop window?
Sunday, May 5

Magic Kingdom day! I had not been since 1988, so yeah, it was different. All of us went this time. We took a boat, went to Tomorrowland and had pretzels, and did Stitch's Great Escape and the Buzz Lightyear shooting game. Then we checked out the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor. Totally funny and interactive with the Monster comedians making fun of people in the audience. Haha!

Ben and me on a boat
Meg and Bren on a boat
Monster comedian!

Katie wanted to do the Haunted Mansion and Benjamin gets too scared of such things, so we left him with Brendon to ride the Speedway cars. Haunted Mansion was cool but it was the SAME RECORDING from when I saw it when I was ten. I was reciting it along with the spooky voice. Then we took a boat around and saw Tom Sawyer Island, met back up with Brendon and Ben for food, and did Pirates of the Caribbean (Ben was so excited) and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (Ben kept yelling for us to take him on it again).

Not quite tall enough, Ben
Pirates of the Caribbean!
Ben's so excited!

And then we got ICE CREAM--I had been waiting all day for it!--and they actually had Tofutti as an option so I got that instead of dairy ice cream! So yum. After some shopping, we left Magic Kingdom and sat on the beach for fireworks. Benjamin was an absolute nut running around trying to get everyone to play with him! The boat show and the fireworks were pretty but we were cold. And then we went home.

Ice cream with Katelyn & Meg
Tofutti with Ben
Cold on the beach

Monday, May 6

Animal Kingdom! We all went except Brendon. We got FastPasses for the Everest roller coaster, then checked out the monkeys and got some food. I ate at a kiosk that was entirely vegetarian food and had super awesome noodles. Then we rode the roller coaster but because there was an angry Yeti and some backwards riding in the dark, Ben got scared. Then he got scared again when we did the It's Tough to Be a Bug movie and dry ice steam obscured our vision while they simulated a bunch of mean hornets attacking us. His grandma took him to play so Katelyn and Meghan and I could ride the scary dinosaur ride. They sent us back in time to when the meteor was hitting.

Benny's wild time
Expedition Everest roller coaster
Dinosaur ride

Then we met up again, let Ben play carnival games, got some snacks, and went home. The end!